Joe Conason's Journal

The war of GOP consultants at the heart of Jeb's reelection campaign.Plus: Another Safire conspiracy blows up in his face like a trick cigar.

By Salon Staff

Published October 21, 2002 4:46PM (EDT)

Black feathers on Bill's menu
William Safire, who wrote in September 1998 that he would have to eat crow if his predictions about imminent indictments in Whitewater, Travelgate and Filegate proved false, may now have to take seconds of that unwholesome bird. (And he still hasn't taken a bite of that first moldy carcass.)

Today on the front page of the newspaper that publishes Safire, James Risen shoots down a major story that Safire has been flogging for the past year to implicate Iraq in the Sept. 11 attacks. Specifically, Safire has insisted in seven columns that terrorist ringleader Mohammad Atta met with an Iraqi spy under diplomatic cover in Prague. Those columns, at least, were based on stories emanating from the Czech and American governments. But Safire went much further, repeatedly accusing the CIA and others of consciously trying to cover up evidence of Iraq's cooperation with al-Qaida. Now we know that Czech president Vaclav Havel says there is no reliable evidence to bolster those charges.

Safire is never corrected and rarely corrects himself -- no matter how outrageous or absurd his assertions turn out to be. Writing about sensitive, highly disputatious topics, he scorns careful qualifiers such as "reportedly" and "alleged." In addition to his predictions about the indictment of Hillary Clinton, which blew up in his face like a trick cigar, he falsely implicated Clinton aides Bruce Lindsey and Sidney Blumenthal in criminal conspiracies. Does anybody know why Safire remains exempt from the standards that govern his colleagues?
[1:18 p.m. PDT, Oct. 21, 2002]

Murph and Karl, GOP odd couple
The hidden story in the Florida governor's race is the odd partnership between Jeb's consultant Mike Murphy and White House guru Karl Rove. They last clashed during the vicious GOP primaries of 2000, when Murphy worked for John McCain. (Having enjoyed the Arizona senator's brilliant comedic performance on "Saturday Night Live," incidentally, I am now thoroughly convinced that he will never run for president again.)

Now those two sprawling egos must work together to preserve the Bush dynasty. The Washington Post reported last Friday that they've already argued about whether the president is an asset or an albatross in this rapidly closing race. While Rove seems confident that the Republican losses will be minimal -- and may even believe his own propaganda about historic midterm gains -- he has worried about Florida for months. And Murphy, who talks constantly about retiring from politics, faces unpromising prospects.

He has run a truly terrible campaign in Massachusetts, where his perfectly beautiful gubernatorial candidate, Mitt Romney, is sinking like a leaky raft. A couple of the TV ads he made for Romney are likely nominees for the worst spots of the political season. And frankly, Murphy hasn't won an important race for a while. His highest-profile job following McCain was the disastrous Lazio Senate campaign in New York, where his candidate got blown out in a landslide after spending an incredible $40 million. Murphy quickly blamed the candidate and the state Republican Party for that humiliation -- just as he glommed the credit for McCain's victories and blamed others for the mistakes.

So who, besides the candidate, is responsible for the missteps that are allowing McBride to catch Bush in Florida? Who decided to go on the air with ads attacking McBride during the Democratic primary? Who advised Jeb last week to skip the court hearing where his daughter was sentenced to 10 days in jail and instead do a campaign stop with his brother? And who thought it would be best if Noelle's mother didn't show up in court, either? If Jeb loses, Murphy will probably turn up somewhere, talking on or off the record about all the screw-ups caused by Rove's operation. The honchos in the White House couldn't be faulted for feeling tense about what Murphy might do or say.

The aftermath of the Florida showdown may resemble the campfire scene in "Treasure of the Sierra Madre." And all that gold dust could end up blowing away in the wind.

Justice for a bourgeois rioter
Even a prosaic government agency can become an agent of poetic justice. New York's Commission on Judicial Conduct, charged with the Augean task of monitoring the ethics of judges around the state, has brought serious charges of misconduct against a prominent participant in the Florida 2000 "bourgeois riot." He's a well-known election lawyer named Tom Spargo -- and his journey to Miami on behalf of George W. Bush, while holding a judicial post upstate, is only the teaser in this excellent account. The highlights include the fact that after Spargo took the Fifth Amendment in a corruption probe 19 times, his reward was a black robe.
[9:50 a.m. PDT, Oct. 21, 2002]

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